Where Time and Eternity Meet

Unexpected God,
your coming advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship,
from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy.
Awaken us now to your coming,
and bend our angers into your peace.
Amen.
~Revised Common Lectionary

photo by Julie Garrett

Sometimes the very walls of our churches
separate us from God
and each other.


In our various naves and sanctuaries
we are safely separated from those outside,
from other denominations, other religions,
separated from the poor, the ugly, the dying.…


The house of God is not a safe place.
It is a cross where time and eternity meet,
and where we are – or should be –
challenged to live more vulnerably,
more interdependently.
~Madeleine L’Engle, from  A Stone for a Pillow

Does anyone have the foggiest idea
of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are

children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.

~Annie Dillard from Teaching a Stone to Talk

Today, after weeks of worshipping outdoors, we move back inside for fall and winter, all wearing masks while separated into four different spaces with social distancing. It may be this way well into next year: nobody knows.

No one is happy that the singing will be limited, there will be no handshakes or hugs and some of us will be watching a live feed on a screen. Some are flat out angry at having to worship this way and will opt to stay away. Yet we are called to come together, to raise our voices corporately in praise, prayer and thanksgiving, despite the risks and unfamiliarity of how these changes look and feel while we try to protect one another from infection.

We tend to forget that walking into church on any Sabbath, not just during a pandemic, takes courage and commitment as we automatically become vulnerable to one another. What one of us says and does can bless or hurt us all. This can be no drowsy worship: we are the poor, the ugly and the dying.

When I hear the secular folks in society scoff at attending church as a “crutch for the weak”, they underestimate what it means to admit a desperate need for salvation and grace that can only be found inside those doors. We who sit in a pew in the sanctuary cling to the life preserver found in the Word. We are lashed to our seats and must hang on.  It is only because of God’s grace that we survive the tempests of temptation, guilt and self-doubt in order to let go of our own anger at the state of the world and the state of our own souls.

Exposing ourselves to the radical mystery and immense power of the living God is not for the faint of heart, yet all of us on the verge of heart failure need God’s deep roots to thrive and grow in our rocky soul soil.

So today, and every day, we must not forget our crash helmets… or our masks.

This Flood of Stillness

I know this happiness
is provisional:

the looming presences –
great suffering, great fear –

withdraw only
into peripheral vision:

but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:

this flood of stillness
widening the lake of sky:

this need to dance,
this need to kneel:

this mystery:
~Denise Levertov “Of Being” from The Stream and the Sapphire

Try as I might to hold fear and suffering
to the periphery of my vision,
it is difficult to keep them there;
like a morning fog clutching at the ground,
bad news creeps out and covers everything,
distorting truth and color and light,
yet so seductive by softening the rough edges
until reality hits.

Maybe I can turn away
Maybe it won’t reach me
Maybe it is all mirage, someone’s imagining.

Still, I can no longer be mere audience to the events of the day,
too weak in the knees to do anything.
The trouble that lies beyond this hill
touches us all.

I kneel in silent witness:
to wait, to listen, to pray for a flood of stillness
to cover us.

All is inescapable mystery,
yet to be clarified.



Everything Dies Too Soon

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

~Mary Oliver from “A Summer Day”

It doesn’t take much to remind me
what a mayfly I am,
what a soap bubble floating over the children’s party.

Standing under the bones of a dinosaur
in a museum does the trick every time
or confronting in a vitrine a rock from the moon…

And the realization that no one
who ever breasted the waters of time
has figured out a way to avoid dying

always pulls me up by the reins and settles me down
by a roadside, grateful for the sweet weeds
and the mouthfuls of colorful wild flowers.

~Billy Collins from “Memento Mori“

I’m reminded daily of how short our time on earth is – the evidence is everywhere. Yesterday it was the stark finality of discovering a beetle-cleaned bighorn sheep skull in the woods, in addition to the bold reality of a black bear paw print on the car sitting next to our cabin.

Each day I receive an email from the local hospital where I’ve had clinical privileges for 35 years – it innumerates the number of admitted COVID-19 cases and deaths, the number of ICU beds filled and the number of ventilators in use. Reading those numbers is like scanning the obituaries for names and ages and causes of death in the newspaper, the only consistent thing I read in the paper anymore. The deaths are reported dispassionately, as if they are inevitable, which they are, yet each happens too soon.

Much too soon.

So the admonition is to pay attention to each living thing and witness each moment, falling onto the grass in worship of this “wild and precious life” I’ve been given rather than dwell on the future when I’ll be buried under the grass.

I shall celebrate being a consumer of this precious life, overjoyed by these sweet weeds and colorful wildflowers. There is still much that awaits me on this earth before, inevitably, I too become the consumed.

Endless Song

My life flows on in endless song
above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real, though far-off hymn

that hails a new creation.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,

while to that rock, I’m clinging
Since love prevails in heaven and earth,

How can I keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear its music ringing
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest round me roars,
I know the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness round me close,

songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,

while to that rock, I’m clinging
Since love prevails in heaven and earth,

How can I keep from singing?

I Lift my eyes. The cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it.
And day by day, this pathway smooths,

since first I learned to love it.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,

I hear the music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul.

How can I keep from singing?
~Robert Lowry

We are spending a few precious days with our grandson in Colorado before his first birthday. He loves being sung to – he rocks and bops to the melodies and rhythms and then relaxes to sleep listening to us sing the quiet evening hymns we sang to his father at night.

He will see so much in his lifetime that we can’t even imagine. Already in his short time on earth there have been plenty of cataclysmic events, and without a doubt, more are in store.

No matter what comes, we pray he will always hear his parents’ and four grandparents’ voices resounding inside his head when things get rough. The hymns and the prayers said over him will give him calm and confidence in the face of trouble.

God’s reality and truth are shared with him in songs and words every day, and as he someday raises children of his own, how can he keep from singing that out when it is most needed?

Listening for Hoof Beats

Every night, no matter where I am
when I lie down, I turn
my back on half the world.

At home, it’s the east I ignore,
with its theatres and silverware,
as I face the adventurous west.

But when I’m on the road
in some hotel’s room 213 or 402
I could be pointed anywhere,

yet I hardly care as long as you
are there facing the other way
so we are defended in all degrees

and my left ear is pressing down
as if listening for hoof beats in the ground.

~Billy Collins “Sleeping on My Side” from Whale Day and Other Poems

It seems amazing we can actually sleep at all, knowing all the hazards out there beyond the bedroom walls

– whether it is pandemic viral particles floating in the air, or pollution from wildfires, or ozone layer depletion or “the-big-one-any-moment” earthquake, or an errant nuclear missile launch, or bands of roving bandits –

it is a wonder we can quiet our minds at all.

When I was about 8 years old, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I didn’t sleep for several days, fearful if I slept, then the world would end and me with it, without even knowing the bomb had hit. Somehow, my staying awake saved the world from destruction and no one, not one single person, ever thanked me for it.

There is always so terribly much to fear if you really think about it. We are constantly lying with our ears to the ground, listening for the hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, wondering how close they have come to our bedside.

These days I take comfort in knowing I don’t always need to be on high alert. I know, in fact, His eye is on the sparrow and He watches over me.

So I can sleep.

Get Up and Go About the Day

Light wakes us – there’s the sun
climbing the mountains’ rim, spilling across the valley,
finding our faces.
It is July,

between the hay and harvest,
a time at arm’s length from all other time…

It is the time
to set aside all vigil, good or ill,
to loosen the fixed gaze of our attention
as dandelions let seedlings to the wind.
Wake with the light.
Get up and go about the day and watch
its surfaces that brighten with the sun.
~Kerry Hardie from “Sleep in Summer”

Saying good-bye to July
is admitting summer is already half-baked
and so are we–
we are still doughy
and not nearly done enough.

The rush to autumn is breathless.
We want to hold on tight
to our longish days
and our sweaty nights
for just a little while longer…

Please, oh please
grant us light
and steady us for the task
of getting ready and letting go.

An Unchanging Flower


 
Like the small soft unchanging flower
     The words in silence speak;
Obedient to their ancient power
     The tear stands on my cheek.

 
Though our world burns, the small dim words
     Stand here in steadfast grace,
And sing, like the indifferent birds,
     About a ruined place.

 
Though the tower fall, the day be done,
     The night be drawing near,
Yet still the tearless tune pipes on,
     And still evokes the tear.

 
The tearless tune, wiser than we,
     As weak and strong as grass
Or the wild bracken-fern we see
     Spring where the palace was.

~Ruth Pitter “On an Old Poem” from Poems 1926-1966

When I write
a poem, sometimes, there is a kind of daze
that lifts, and I can see
what I couldn’t before, as if my mind
was in a fog, a cloud,
and only wanted

a poem to lift it out. I wanted
the rhythm, just the right
word, the crescendo from whisper to loud
celebration, and found them in the days
of trying poems. And I don’t mind
telling you: poetry has brought complacency

to a (wanted) end, turned upside-down days
aright, settled my unquiet mind,
and allowed me to clearly see.

~Monica Sharman from What Poetry Can Do”

When the world is topsy-turvy
and all seems immersed in fog and cobwebs,
it helps to put down images and words
to clarify and highlight.

Daily I need reminding to stay centered,
daily I acknowledge what makes me weep
and what is worth celebration.

It is a new day to illustrate with words and pictures
what is unchanging in my life:
thank God for a new day,
everyday.

From Cut and From Tumble…

God keep my jewel this day from danger;
From tinker and pooka and bad-hearted stranger.
From harm of the water, from hurt of the fire.
From the horns of the cows going home to the byre.
From the sight of the fairies that maybe might change her.
From teasing the ass when he’s tied to the manger.
From stones that would bruise her, from thorns of the briar.
From evil red berries that wake her desire.
From hunting the gander and vexing the goat.
From the depths o’ sea water by Danny’s old boat.
From cut and from tumble, from sickness and weeping;
May God have my jewel this day in his keeping.
~Winifred Lett (1882-1973) Prayer for a Child

This prayer has hung in our home for almost three decades, purchased when I was pregnant with our first child.  When I first saw it with its drawing of the praying mother watching her toddler leave the safety of the home to explore the wide world, I knew it addressed most of my worries as a new mother, in language that helped me smile at my often irrational fears.  I would glance at it dozens of time a day, and it would remind me of God’s care for our children through every scary thing, real or imagined.

And I continue to pray for our grown children, their spouses, and now for three precious grandchildren who live far from us. I do this because I can’t help myself but do it, and because I’m helpless without the care and compassion of our sovereign God.

Right now, this week, I pray for all children who are growing up in an increasingly divisive and conflicted world, who cannot understand why skin color should make a difference to one’s hopes and dreams and freedom to walk anywhere without feeling threatened.

May I be changed in my prayers.
May we all be changed, in a twinkling of an eye.

I pray because I can’t help myself.
I pray because I’m helpless.
I pray because the need flows out of me all the time

— waking and sleeping.
It doesn’t change God — it changes me.

~C.S. Lewis

Casting All Your Cares

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1Peter 5:7

In late May, on our farm,  there is only a brief period of utter silence during the dark of the night.  Up until about 2 AM, the spring peepers are croaking and chorusing vigorously in our ponds and wetlands, and around 4 AM the diverse bird song begins in the many tall trees surrounding the house and barnyard.

In between those bookend symphonies is stillness–usually.

I woke too early this morning aware of something being unstill.  It was an intermittent banging, coming from the barn.  I lay in bed, trying to discern the middle of the night noise that could be a sign of a major problem, like a horse stuck up against a stall wall or “cast” in horseman’s parlance,  or simply one of my water-bucket-banging geldings who enjoys nocturnal percussion.

This was not sounding like a bucket drum set.  It was emphatic hooves frantically banging against metal walls.

Throwing on sweats and boots, I head out the back door into the mere light of pre-dawn, dewy, with the birds just starting to rouse from sleep, the floral perfume of lingering apple blossoms heavy in the air.  Entering the barn, I throw on the lights and start to count the noses I can see in the stalls as I walk down the aisle~all present and accounted for until I get to the very end of the row.  No nose.   Down in the corner is one of our older mares on her side, too close to the wall, her feet askew up against the boards and metal siding.  She nickered low to me, and my entering the stall sent her into a renewed effort to right herself, but all she could do was scrabble against the wall, digging an even bigger hole beneath her body.

This has happened infrequently over our 35 years of owning horses, usually when a horse is rolling to scratch their back and rolls too close to the wall, and becomes lodged there.  Haflingers, who have a fairly round conformation, are a bit prone to being cast.  Our older barn,  with dirt floors, is particularly likely to having this happen, as depressions in the floor where horses have been digging end up becoming deeper and trap a hapless horse that was nonchalantly rolling.  The horse literally is trapped like a turtle on its back.

Righting a 1000 lb. horse that is frantically flailing and struggling is not a particularly easy or safe task.  Thankfully Haflingers tend to be pretty sensible in this situation and will calm when spoken to and be reassured we’re trying to help.  Carefully, I threw and looped a rope around each lower leg, and with help from the man of the house, we were able to pull her back over, and then jump out of her way quickly.  She got up, shook herself off and immediately asked for breakfast–a good sign this was not a horse in distress or colicking with abdominal pain.

So our day started early.

I hope when I find myself trapped in a hole of my own making, when I’ve been careless about watching where I’m heading and find myself helpless and hopeless with no where and no way to turn, someone will hear my struggles and come rescue me.  I promise not to kick out or bite,  but to wait patiently, in gratitude, for such gracious liberation.  

My cares will be cast upon my rescuer.

And then please, offer me breakfast.

John 21: 12 – Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”

Known and Unknown

As a fond mother, when the day is o’er,
   Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
   Half willing, half reluctant to be led,
   And leave his broken playthings on the floor,
Still gazing at them through the open door,
   Nor wholly reassured and comforted
   By promises of others in their stead,
   Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
   Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
   Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
   Being too full of sleep to understand
   How far the unknown transcends the what we know.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “Nature”

I remember being reluctant to go to bed as a child; I could miss something important that the adults waited to do until after I was asleep, or I wasn’t sure that I wanted to turn myself over to my dreams.

I had a period of time when I was in third grade (during the Cuban missile crisis) when I really was terrified to go to sleep, and ended up reading comic books during the night hours, trying to keep myself distracted from whatever fears I harbored. My mother, frantic for sleep herself during this worrisome time, consulted my pediatrician who prescribed orange juice with a tablespoon of brandy – for me, not for her. She was outraged at the thought, being a teetotaler, so bought no brandy for me (or for herself). I eventually got over my sleep issues, but not my worried heart.

The unknown is always more frightening than the known, and the older I got, the more I learned during 24 years of formal education and training, the more I realized I didn’t know. There would be no end to it. Even though I still spend several hours a week reading for required and non-required continuing medical education, I don’t crack the surface of everything that is news in my profession. There is a whole lot that I need to un-learn because it is now proven that it is no longer valid as it originally was over four decades of medical practice.

During the last three months of COVID-19, it is like drinking from several firehoses at once, as data on this previously unknown virus comes piecemeal from countless sources: the studies are rushed and sample sizes are small, conclusions are tentative, often barely peer-reviewed and sometimes disproven the next week by another study. What was considered “fact” a month ago may no longer be so.

So I know I must settle into the reality that there will always be plenty of unknowns, particularly as I reluctantly let go of life’s playthings one by one.

The unknown will always transcend the known on this side of the veil so I appreciate that I am gently led, in faith, to that long-awaited sleep that was so elusive before.